At the beginning of the NHL’s current regular season, there was a good case to be made that the Metropolitan Division was going to be the most difficult of the four divisions.
And, for a very brief period of time out of the gate, that prediction looked like it was going to come to pass. But now, with about half of the schedule completed, the Metro is likely to be the NHL’s least-competitive, with all four of the playoff spots more or less locked up by the Carolina Hurricanes, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Washington Capitals having significant standings points advantages over the fifth-place Columbus Blue Jackets and the three teams below them.
Where in the Pacific, Atlantic and Central Divisions, a poor week or two could have serious effects on the standings, nothing short of a miracle would push the Blue Jackets and their 36 standings points past the fourth-place Penguins (51 points), let alone present a challenge to the Rangers (tied with the Hurricanes for first place, with 54 points) or the Caps (in third place, with 53 points). That separation is a disappointment for Columbus, Philadelphia, the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils, but in the long run, it could be better for the Metro’s bottom-four teams, because it gives them full license to make bigger trades than they would’ve if they thought there was a serious possibility of contending for a playoff berth.
With their lineups all but assured to miss the post-season, the Devils and Flyers respectively can put up veterans P.K. Subban and Claude Giroux (both of whom will be unrestricted free agents this coming summer) and accept a deal which has negative optics in the short term, but positive benefits beginning next year and stretching into the longer-term. Similarly, the Islanders will have an easier time trading away veterans and soon-to-be UFAs Andy Greene and Cal Clutterbuck, and the Blue Jackets will be more likely to move forward Max Domi, whose contract also ends after this season. In a more competitive division, there would’ve been temptation by executives from those four teams to be buyers. However, a month from now, or perhaps sooner, there will be every justification for them to effectively wave the white flag on this season and be full-on sellers.
Selling off key assets will leave a sour taste in their fans’ mouths, but it sure beats battling it out right through Game 82, just missing out on a playoff berth, and hurting their chances at drafting at or near the No. 1 overall position. That would have more long-term pain than any non-playoff Metro team is going to have in the next 40 games or so. Fooling themselves into thinking they’re anything better than what they are at present would hamstring those non-playoff-teams more than the first half of this season already has.
Sometimes, the pain is worth it. Tanking isn’t an exact science, but it’s better than the NHL’s mushy middle. And that’s a gift to the Metro’s non-playoff teams, who don’t have to chase their tail in service of a playoff dream that, even if it were realized, would be likely to end after the first round did. There shouldn’t be any delusions of grandeur for them. When you’re in a double-digit standings points deficit by the midway point of the year, the hockey gods are trying to send you a message.
That message isn’t “give up”, but rather, it is to take the fight to another day, down the line, when they have a new generational player on their side. Right now, teams that have struggled in years before this one are currently reaping the rewards of long-term patience.
It’s always possible that a current team in the Metro hits their stride between now and mid-April, and makes a push for a playoff berth. But sooner or later - and really, it ought to be sooner - the reality of the Metro will slap them across the face, the way it did through the first half of this year. Reacting properly to the present-day reality, with a focus on the seasons to come, will be the fastest way for them to forget about the pain they’re experiencing now.